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  • Writer's pictureJohn Michael Cooper


Updated: Feb 19, 2022

W.E.B. Du Bois’s bold and brilliant civil-rights manifesto Credo was first published in 1904 and republished with revisions at the head of his 1920 autobiography, Darkwater: Voices from within the Veil. It quickly became the iconic civil-rights text of the twentieth century, surpassed only by Dr. Martin Luther King, jr.’s, “I Have a Dream Speech,” given during the March on Washington on 28 August 1963. Bonds set Du Bois’s manifesto to music in 1963-65, and the work was premiered by the Frederick Wilkinson Vocal Studio in Washington, D.C., with Bonds at the piano, on 12 March 1967. The orchestral version was premiered later that year, but both versions remained unpublished when she died in 1972. Several weeks after her death excerpts from the orchestral version were performed by Zubin Mehta the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and that version was then performed in its entirety by the Compton Civic Symphony Orchestra and the Los Angeles Jubilee Singers under the direction of Hans Lampl in 1973; Du Bois’s widow attended this performance and described the composition as “a work of art that is eternal – that will live as long as people love each other and really believe in brotherhood,” labeling the event “one of the most moving moments of [her] life.”

But that prophecy of eternity was premature – for the Credo, as an expansive composition written by an African American woman, remained unpublished. As I show in the book, Sam Fox Music offered to publish the Credo if Bonds would make some of its text less race-specific – but while Bonds considered doing so and even asked Du Bois’s widow about it, those requested alterations were never entered. That was a good call, the only conscionable choice on Bonds’s part. But it also had a downside, for the Credo remained unpublished. It lay silent for nearly half a century. Or rather, silenced – silenced by the oppressive commercial might of the systemic racism of U.S. classical music, which refused to publish this intrepid musical affirmation that Black lives and Black voices matter unless the text were neutralized to assert, as it were, that “all lives and all voices matter.”

In 2003 Dr. Rollo Dillworth, now Chair of the Music Education and Music Therapy Department at Temple, wrote an excellent D.M. dissertation on the subject of the Credo, but this did not lead to publication or performance. In 2018, I accessed the autograph scores for the work in the Booth Family Center for Rare Books and Special Collections in the Libraries of Georgetown University (Washington, D.C.), and this work, together with Margaret Bonds’s orchestral magnum opus, The Montgomery Variations, is the subject of my forthcoming book in the New Cambridge Music Studies series for Cambridge University Press (due out in December 2022). Finally, though, in 2020, the Credo was published in my edition by Hildegard Publishing Company as part of their Margaret Bonds Signature Series – the first step in making this extraordinary composition, a classical social-justice manifesto the likes of which the world had never seen before and has never seen since, available for modern performers and listeners, teachers and students.

Now the Credo sounds again. This past Tuesday, Margaret Bonds’s setting of the civil-rights CREDO of W.E.B. Du Bois was performed as the finale of an all-Bonds concert given by GRAMMY-winning chorus Conspirare under the direction of the ever-ingenious Craig Hella Johnson, with Nicole Joseph, soprano, Marques Jerrell Ruff, bass-baritone, and Anton Nel on the piano. With that performance, Maestro Johnson, Anton Nel, and the artists of Conspirare made history. And they did so as part of a program that was, IMO, as visionary as it is timely -- and with a pervasive artistry that was mind-boggling in its technical perfection, musical conviction, and sheer beauty.

The livestream of that historic concert is now available on YouTube. Here's the Credo segment, followed by a crude time-stamp listing of the entire program. Enjoy!

  • Welcome and introductions by Ann McNair and Craig Hella Johnson: 15:46

  • Reading: America Again (Craig Hella Johnson and Conspirare): 24:32

  • Reading: from an interview and the correspondence of Margaret Bonds (Melissa Givens): 32:02

  • The Negro Speaks of Rivers (Craig Hella Johnson and Conspirare): 33:43

  • Reading: the voice of W.E.B. Du Bois, from The Souls of Black Folk (Marques Jerrell Ruff): 39:52

  • “Valley of the Bones,” from Spirituals Suite (Anton Nel, piano): 45:10

  • “The Bells,” from Spirituals Suite 48:49 (Anton Nel, piano)

  • Reading: Langston Hughes, Negro (Nicole Joseph): 53:43

  • African Dance (Nicole Joseph, soprano, and David Kurtenbach Rivera, tenor): 55:18

  • Reading: Langston Hughes: Prayer (Meg Dudley): 58:33

  • When the Dove Enters In (Laura Mercado-Wright, soprano, Tim O’Brien, bass, and Gregory Fletcher, bass): 59:08

  • Readings from the correspondence of Margaret Bonds (Melissa Givens): 1:05:13

  • Credo (Craig Hella Johnson and Conspirare): 1:07:47

    • I. I Believe in God (1:07:47)

    • II. Especially Do I Believe in the Negro Race (Nicole Joseph, soprano) (1:09:55)

    • III. I Believe in Pride of Race and Lineage and Self (1:13:10)

    • IV. I Believe in the Devil and His Angels (1:15:54)

    • V. I Believe in the Prince of Peace (1:17:15)

    • VI. I Believe in Liberty (Marques Jerrell Ruff, bass-baritone) (1:22:18)

    • VII. I Believe in Patience (1:25:59)


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